Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday & Co. on verge of completing Pelicans’ playoff push
When New Orleans acquired center DeMarcus Cousins last season, it was supposed to be the push the Pelicans needed to become a playoff team.
New Orleans went 7-10 with Cousins and missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season while all-star power forward Anthony Davis was in his prime.
When the Pelicans lost Cousins to a torn Achilles’ tendon in late January, it was supposed to derail their playoff prospects.
New Orleans has maintained the same winning pace without him and enters the season’s final four days with a chance of making the playoffs for the second time in Davis’ seven-year career.
It has less to do with Cousins and more to do with stability and the health of the core players. Before Cousins came along for 65 games over two seasons, the Pelicans had their base with Davis and Jrue Holiday.
For four seasons at New Orleans’ helm, coach Alvin Gentry never was able to suit up his intended team. Even without Cousins, having Davis and Holiday together at full health for the first time is a luxury that has put New Orleans in a mix of six teams jockeying for fourth through eighth in the West.
“It feels good,” Davis said. “It’s been a while since we’ve even been able to make a push for the playoffs so to be back in the situation is good for us, but we’re going to enjoy it and have fun with it. It’s fun. There’s nothing to stress about. We live great lives. Ain’t nothing to stress about. In the end, it’s just a game. We’re able to go out there and play the game we love.”
Davis, 25, will make most MVP ballots for a season in which he might finish with career highs in scoring and shooting. He is averaging 28 points a game (second in the NBA) and shooting better than 53% with significant improvement in his three-point shot, making him an offensive marvel for a player who entered the NBA with defense prowess and offensive potential.
Davis said “his radar” is set off by seeing Holiday turn up the defensive intensity and that it makes him want to match the head of their defense. The Pelicans rank fourth in defensive rating since Cousins left the lineup.
New Orleans started last season having to rally when it opened 0-8 without Holiday. This season, Holiday is shooting a career high 49% from the field while averaging 19.0 points, 5.9 assists and 4.5 rebounds a game.
“People are starting to see what we can do together and as a team,” Holiday said.
It likely saved the season when New Orleans traded for Nikola Mirotic after losing Cousins. With some crediting a recent clean shave for busting his 10-game shooting funk, Mirotic’s shooting threat as a big man can open the floor for Davis and Holiday.
A healthy Davis-Holiday duo “is a dynamic of its own,” said Pelicans forward Solomon Hill, who played his first game less than three weeks ago after recovering from a torn hamstring. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen that. Coach never got a chance to coach a full, healthy team. But the two guys we want to build around are healthy and you see what we’re doing.
“People think we’re supposed to be over. We were supposed to be doing this before Cuz [Cousins] got hurt. We were putting ourselves in a situation to be successful and he just adds on to the dynamic of AD and Jrue.”
Davis and Holiday are the only rotation holdovers from that last Pelicans playoff team in 2015, when Golden State ousted them in a first-round sweep. New Orleans last won a playoff game in 2011, when it lost 4-2 to the Lakers in a first-round series.
“You don’t want to just be part of the playoff race and think that’s OK,” Hill said. “You want to set the foundation that you know you’re moving in the right direction. I think it started last year as far as establishing our core of who we wanted to be here moving forward regardless of winning or not. Bringing in Cuz, re-signing Jrue, AD being healthy and then putting guys around them is building a core of what we want to do moving forward. If we can keep getting experience now, it shows what we want to do next year. We want to do better and establish that this is who we are.”
After New Orleans plays Monday against the Clippers at Staples Center, a wild Wednesday could be set up because the Pelicans play the Spurs at home and Denver plays at Minnesota.
“It’s the way it has been the last month, month and a half,” Gentry said. “It’s not anything unusual. It’s kind of what we’re accustomed to right now.”
Gentry’s coaching style empowers and loosens players. He left New Orleans as an assistant in 2004, ultimately benefiting the Pelicans because he was influenced by Mike D’Antoni, Doc Rivers and Steve Kerr before he got another head coaching chance in Phoenix.
Gentry, 63, has a story for any situation and experience for every scenario. He is why New Orleans, despite inexperience for this situation, is not fazed by it.
“That’s been our MO all year — never get too high, never get too low,” Davis said. “We make sure we have fun with it. Whatever the result is, if we gave ourselves a chance to win and played our style of basketball and we come out on the losing side, we can live with that.”
That is the culture Mirotic found when he joined them in February, less than four months after being punched by then-Chicago teammate Bobby Portis during practice.
“I knew they had great chemistry and they stick together,” Mirotic said of the Pelicans. “They’re all great guys.
“I just wanted to help the team because they wanted to be in the playoffs and I wanted to be part of a team going to the playoffs. I’m very happy right now and thankful for the opportunity.”
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